It's a three-way race in a sprawling district.

On Tuesday, voters in southwestern Virginia will choose Phil Puckett's replacement in the General Assembly. The vote in the 38th district will also determine which political party controls the state senate.
 
The 38th Senate District stretches from Radford to Big Stone Gap.

What connects the communities along the way, the candidates say, is the need for more economic opportunity.

We sat down with Democrat Mike Hymes in Tazewell, where he built a career in the coal industry, and now serves on the county board of supervisors.

"It's important that we fund education properly," Hymes told us. "We don't fund education like we should. And if you don't have a good education system, you don't have a competent work force. "

We met Republican Ben Chafin in Lebanon where he practices law.  A farmer and attorney, Chafin has served in the House of Delegates for a year.

"I've worked very hard since I went into the legislature to support our industry, to help protect our industries here locally and to return jobs to southwest Virginia," Chafin said. "I think I'm more qualified in that than any of my opponents."

An hour later we were in Clintwood, where Independent Rick Mullins operates a funeral home and other businesses. He believes Medicaid expansion is essential for the region's economic health.

"Without Medicaid expansion, we're going to see other rural hospital close," Mullins said in an interview Thursday afternoon. "If Dickenson County medical center closes, hospitals in Wise County Virginia close, we have no chance to prosper our economy."

A special election in the middle of August presents a special challenge for the candidates. The one with the best ground game to get out the vote could have an advantage on Tuesday.

Chafin and Hymes have traded charges in a series of campaign commercials. And Mullins is preparing to advertise on television as well.

We'll look at that part of the debate Friday night on WDBJ7 at Six.